Mexico’s Kaiser prepares to face the host

Rafael Márquez, the first man to captain a team at four World Cups, is hoping to beat Brazil again

Juan Diego Quesada
Márquez greets supporters after the game against Cameroon.
Márquez greets supporters after the game against Cameroon. getty images

In a country as sensitive as Mexico, a victory is followed by a night out on the town and a defeat calls for mourning. Its 1-0 win over Cameroon in its opening World Cup match has raised the expectations of the Mexican team. When the players arrived in Brazil, they were down because they had fared badly in qualification. But, after defeating the African team, more than 300 Mexico fans gathered in front of the hotel where el Tri, as the national squad is nicknamed, was staying in order to sing the players a serenade.

Amid all of the euphoria, one man – the one who wears the armband on the field – has been through all of it before and observes the scene with the reserve of a war veteran. Thirty-five-year-old Rafael “The Kaiser” Márquez was born in Zamora (Michoacán) and is the first player in history to captain his country at four different World Cups. On Tuesday the Kaiser of Michoacán will confront the greatest challenge of his career as he leads his team out to face host Brazil.

Beating Brazil is no mystery for this generation of Mexicans. Forward Oribe Peralta scored two goals to defeat the South Americans in the 2012 Olympic final in London. In 2005, a U-17 team that included Giovani Dos Santos and Héctor Moreno beat the Brazilians to become world champion. At least eight of Mexico’s players have won matches against Brazil. The mystique surrounding the five-time champion might scare those who saw Pelé play in Mexico City’s Azteca Stadium in the 1970s, but these young men – bold as they are and with fewer hangups – have discovered the Brazilians are just as fallible as the rest.

I have always said that Mexico needed a total change in mentality to grow and this team is doing that”

Manuel Lapuente, who coached the Mexican national team at the 1998 World Cup in France, has asked his wife not to pass him any phone calls during the matches. Though there is one exception: he will take the call if it is to talk about Márquez. “I treated him like a kid before he went to play for Barcelona,” Lapuente said. “He is very disciplined and orderly on the field and has a strong personality. In stressful situations, he sometimes gets himself sent off. He is great human being, a great leader even when he is standing next to the likes of Cuauhtémoc and Jorge Campos. He never shrank back. He had the mettle of a leader.”

Márquez himself has defeated Brazil on five occasions. The most notable was in 2003, when Mexico won the final of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Gold Cup, 1-0.

The Kaiser, as Márquez is nicknamed for his levelheadedness when it comes to clearing the ball out of danger, has had to win back the affection of his followers. He was sent off for elbowing the United States’ Cobi Jones at the 2002 World Cup when Mexico was losing 2-0. The fans did not forgive him for taking himself out of the game as his team suffered its most humiliating defeat – the kind only a neighbor can inflict. But time has buried that day in the heap of other painful memories and Márquez is now the great captain who can take these enthusiastic players where their predecessors failed to go: beyond the quarterfinals.

The former Barça player is now the cornerstone of León, the Mexican team owned by business magnate Carlos Slim. León is the reigning Liga MX champion. Playing his fourth World Cup as captain, Márquez has surpassed the record set by Maradona, who served as captain at three world championships. The Kaiser has a prediction: “I have always said that Mexico needed a total change in mentality in order to grow and this team is doing that.” An entire country will be sizing up his leadership on Tuesday.

 Translation: Dyane Jean François

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